It’s late at night. You toss and turn, but you can’t get to sleep. You keep thinking about that person—the look on his face when you had your last fight—the tone of her voice when she told you to leave. You can’t forget the angry words, the sense of betrayal, the question of “Why?” And yet… you still miss that person. How you wish you could undo time! Will the two of you ever be back on your old terms with each other? Is reconciliation possible?
Reconciliation is the process of mending a broken relationship. It might be a friendship, a marriage, or another family relationship. Something has gone wrong between the two people involved, and now there are feelings of hurt, anger, sadness, and grief. Blame and distrust are other feelings that might be in the mix, depending on what caused the relationship break.
Generally speaking, reconciliation requires forgiveness, often on both sides. It is possible to have a relationship break for reasons that are technically nobody’s fault—people often blame one another for events that could not have been prevented, like accidents or deaths. But even in those cases, it is common for one or both parties to be carrying hurt feelings (irrational though they may be), and need to deal with those through forgiveness. You can learn more about forgiveness here.
Reconciliation is different from forgiveness for several reasons. The first is because it takes both people to make a real reconciliation. You can forgive unilaterally, even if the person who harmed you is in complete denial, absent, or dead. But you cannot reconcile with someone who isn’t there to be reconciled with.
Even if the person is physically present, there’s no way to force a reconciliation on someone who doesn’t want it. They may say all the right words—“let bygones be bygones” or “we won’t think about it anymore”—but the whole time, their body language and their tone of voice continues to show that the relationship is still broken. They may be refusing to forgive you, or they may be refusing to admit that they themselves have done harm. It may be a little of both. In any case, the reconciliation is going nowhere until both people are on board.
The other thing that makes reconciliation different from forgiveness is the goal of the process. With forgiveness, the goal is to get rid of an emotional burden—to release the other person from your own condemnation—to eliminate the mental “debt” the person owes you in your own mind. Reconciliation goes further—it is the attempt to restore a relationship either to its old state or to something better. And that’s often appropriate, but not always.
When would you NOT want to reconcile? This could happen if the other person continues to be a danger to you, either physically or emotionally. It’s not a good idea to reconcile with someone who is abusive. In fact, you may not want to even meet or speak to a person who has caused you harm if there is any likelihood of them doing it again. You can forgive—that is, release your grudges—at a distance; but reconciliation requires getting close enough to be hurt again. If that’s unsafe, don’t do it. Even the Bible doesn’t require us to reconcile with such people, as if the original evil had never happened. Forgiveness is commanded; “going back to the way things were” is not.
But let’s assume things are better than that. You want to reconcile; and you know that it wouldn’t be dangerous if it worked out. How do you go about it?
Jesus gave us a road map for that kind of reconciliation. He said this: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.” (Matthew 18:15-17)
Let’s take that advice apart. First he says, “Go and talk to the other person, just the two of you alone.” (Remember, we’re only talking about people it is safe for you to be around right now.) By talking alone, you prevent the whole mess from going public and you spare both of you embarrassment. You also make it possible for one or both of you to reconsider your positions without feeling the need to “double down” on what you said or did previously, because others are watching.
But suppose the one-on-one thing doesn’t work. You can kick it up a notch by taking along a mutual friend—someone who’s seen the whole thing play out and who really wants to see the two of you reconcile. Sometimes the extra viewpoint is just what you need when you’re trying to open someone else’s eyes—or even your own. Sometimes the extra person may see or think of an angle neither of you could find on your own.
But what if this still isn’t working, and you really, really want to keep trying for that reconciliation? Jesus’ original words were given to his followers and apply within the church, so they don’t fit exactly with two people who might not be Christian believers who are trying to reconcile. And yet, sometimes there is value in appealing to a larger community—say, a family or a group of friends. This can go badly wrong if one person doesn’t believe the larger community has any business in the relationship, however. So be careful before you try this.
Where reconciliation is possible—and not dangerous—most people would agree it’s a good thing. Christians place a high priority on reconciliation because it’s in the very nature of the God they follow. The major purpose of Jesus coming to earth, dying, and rising from the dead, was to reconcile the broken relationship between God and humanity. Jesus wants a similar restored unity between the humans he created and loves.
So even when the process of reconciliation is hard, we find value in pursuing it. Do you see value in it too?